Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

How and why to use television to learn Chinese

This is the first guest article by Luke Howard, whom I met on one of the Hacking Chinese meet-ups here in Taipei. He speaks Chinese well and when he told me that he relies heavily on watching TV to learn the language, I naturally became interested and wanted to know more. I don’t watch much TV myself, so instead of writing about this myself, I asked Luke to write about it. Enjoy!

Television is a valuable asset in the modern language learners toolkit. The medium provides a convenient way to enjoy large volumes of passive listening practice in a stress free environment.

foodThe combination of visual and auditory senses makes the medium accessible to the entire spectrum of Chinese learners, from the beginner through to advanced learners.

I have been watching television (and reading books) as the primary staple in my Chinese learning since I started nearly 4 years ago. With the exception of a 3 month experiment where I attended a University class, I am entirely self-taught. It’s the fun of learning in this way that brings me back day after day.

Watching television is a healthy part of any language learners diet. I hope that by the end of this article, you will have a desire to go out and explore the medium on your own terms.

Why learn from watching TV?

Whether it’s your primary source of study material or just complementary to taking classes, watching TV in Chinese provides an abundant source of native Chinese listening practice. By watching material that you find fun and interesting, your brain will absorb the material in a more efficient way.

Media sources

If you live in a Chinese speaking country, cable TV is usually affordable and provides the most efficient way to access large amounts of content with minimal effort.

For those inside mainland China, 优酷 (youku.cn) and土豆 (tuduo.cn) will service all your needs. Unfortunately, outside mainland China these sites can often stream too slowly to be useful.

If that’s the case, YouTube has a great deal of user generated content, as well as uploads of many popular television shows.

For those that have extra discretionary income, I suggest buying box sets of TV shows that you enjoy. I’ve used www.yesasia.com many times before, and they provide free international delivery if you meet minimum order requirements.

Gotchas and how to overcome them

1. English subtitles

Many box sets and online sources provide an option to display subtitles in English. However, when English subtitles are turned on, your brain will derive all understanding from them, and filter out the Chinese sounds you are hearing. This means they act as a crutch that should be avoided as much as possible.

2. Character recognition

Chinese subtitles, however, are a great asset. They let your brain associate the sounds of the language with their written counterparts. This will only work though if you already have a basic understanding of how Chinese characters are formed (radicals, components etc) and can recognise a small number of common characters. Hacking Chinese has some great articles to get you started on the character learning journey.

3. Losing the plot

Even in the beginner phase, it’s still usually possible to follow the plot and get the gist of what’s going on, just by using the visual imagery. Of course, you’ll miss all the subtlety, but if you choose shows that interest you, this rarely detracts from the enjoyment.

However, you will still occasionally misinterpret what’s going on for an extended period, causing you to lose an overall grasp of the plot. In these instances, I suggest going to English Wikipedia or YesAsia.com (if it’s an older show already in box set form) to read the plot for the show.

Some people may even prefer to read these plot guides before watching the show in the first place. I see no harm in doing so.

4. Names

Names were one of the trickiest parts of learning Chinese for me, and you may or may not have the same experience. Since names are used frequently in television shows, having a strategy to deal with them is especially important.

I suggest using the plot descriptions, and pausing shows when names are used, to create Anki cards with names for each of the characters. Usually the main 3 – 4 character names will be repeated enough not to need this, but it’s very useful for all the rest.

5. Boredom

Boredom is kryptonite for TV based language learners. Learning Chinese with TV is a mostly passive listening exercise that only reaps benefits with massive exposure.

If you let even a little bit of boring content through your filters, it will compound and kill your motivation to keep watching TV at all.

Don’t ever fall into the trap of spending hours finishing a series you originally found fun but now find boring, all just so you can say, “I watched all of show X.” It’s not worth it in the long run.

rgAdd a dash of study

1. Spaced Repetition

Watching television is a natural “spaced repetition” system, in that high frequency words come up over and over again.

Still, in the beginner and intermediate stages it can be helpful to look up some of the interesting words that come up frequently in a show that you’re watching, and then add it to a formal spaced repetition system like Anki.

There are a number of Chinese language learners that I respect a lot who advocate the use of tools like subs2srs. Subs2srs is a tool which automatically cuts the subtitles for a show up into sentences and creates Anki cards for you.

Having tried this a few times, I personally cannot recommend this technique. It creates too many cards and after a while the amount of time I spend inside my SRS outweighs the time I spend in front of the TV.

Still, many other learners have had success using these tools, so your mileage may vary. If it sounds like your thing, consult the interwebs for an abundance of information to get you started.

2. Shadowing

Shadowing is a technique whereby you pick a character from a show you like, and mimic everything he says. Trying to get yourself sounding as close to the real actor as possible works wonders for your Chinese.

Shadowing forces you to focus on grammar and speech particles that your brain usually filters out, helps make you much more conscious of where breaks in speech and pauses between words should go, and provides good intonation and tone practice.

3. Complementary study

A balanced study regime is essential to be most effective in learning Chinese. Watching television is a passive learning activity, and you’ll find that when you hear words (or see them in subtitles) that you’ve recently learnt in a more active study session, your brain will hone in on that word.

At this moment, having seen the word in context, your brain will then decide it must be important to remember and strengthen the association.

Without complementing television watching with more structured learning activities, you’ll lose many of the benefits that come from watching television in Chinese.

Read more…

  1. A learner’s guide to TV shows in Chinese, part 1
  2. A learner’s guide to TV shows in Chinese, part 2

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  1. Sara K. says:

    Yes! Chinese-language television! I miss watching shows in Chinese … something I plan to do more of when I am settled down again.

    My most detailed recommendations can be found at my column for Manga Bookshelf (on indefinite hiatus):


    … but the short version is that of the Taiwanese idol dramas, these are my top recommendations:

    – 命中注定我愛你 – an overall excellent show with some seriousness for gravitas and plenty of ridiculousness for fun. There is a lot of linguistic subtlety for advanced learners, but it is totally not necessary to understand everything in order to enjoy it (in fact, I like rewatching it because each time I understand something which I didn’t get before)
    – 放羊的星星 – in some ways not as polished as the above, but it still has a really good story with lots of ridiculous fun.
    – 戰神 – I have personal reasons for loving this drama which are irrelevant to most Chinese learners, but this is still one of the most highly rated Taiwanese idol dramas ever. I still think this show presents Vic Zhou’s best acting performance, and Barbie Hsu is also one of the finest actresses in Taiwanese TV, which makes this show one of the top acting showcases in idol drama land.

    As far as wuxia TV shows … there are many great shows I have not seen, but the two I most highly recommend are 連城訣 2004 and 笑傲江湖 1996, particularly the latter. There is a near consensus that 笑傲江湖 1996 is the best wuxia TV show of the 1990s.

    Another TV show which I found very addictive is the 1980s version of 煙雨濛濛.

  2. I’ve tried to get into watching Chinese movies at least, but haven’t gotten very far with it. TV is an interesting option because it’s a medium that cuts consumption into shorter doses. I look forward to the next article for suggestions of what to watch!

  3. Harland says:

    Well, how are you supposed to figure out unknown words? Most subtitles are burned into the video, very few are available as separate .SRT files. There are OCR programs that will scan videos and output the characters, but all these do is pop up a window every time they see a character and ask you to enter it. If you don’t know the character, you can’t possibly type it in. That subs2srs software above requires subtitle files, which in my experience simply don’t exist for most Chinese video content. Certainly not on video websites like youku and tudou.

    The column barely touches on the boredom issue. In my experience, most Chinese TV shows are either mind-numbingly boring, incredibly stupid, or are set centuries ago and contain lots of vocabulary irrelevant to the modern learner like “court eunuch”.

    1. Eric M says:

      Hard subs seems to be the biggest problem with trying to learn from Chinese shows. I looked everywhere to find 中文 soft subs of even the most popular shows. Most subtitle sites have Chinese subs for English shows or English subs for Chinese show. I can never find Chinese soft subs for Chinese shows.

      1. Diane N says:

        I have not yet used much, but there are a number of Chinese (and Hollywood-produced) subtitles available through “Learn Chinese from Movies.” That offers a separate file to play along with a DVD or an online version of the films that have been subtitled.

        It’s not TV, but it’s video-based.

  4. Luke Howard says:

    Sara – Agreed, there are just so many great Taiwanese idol dramas it was difficult to choose just one recommendation! (I only pick one show per category). I won’t spoil my recommendation here, but the one I went with is the most “western like” idol drama I’ve seen in Taiwan, hoping that it might have the broadest appeal to new language learners not used to the unique style of many shows in Taiwan! (hint: it’s a police drama).

    In case you’re interested, my favourite idol drama is 籃球火 (Hot Shots). Looking at it objectively, it’s not even close to been one of the better idol dramas, but it was the first show I ever watched in Chinese and 羅志祥 (Show Lo)’s boundless energy captivates me every time I watch it!

    Lili – Hopefully someone will write an article with movie recommendations, because it’s also a great medium for learning. But you’re absolutely right that the increased consumption time per sitting means it’s even more important to have good recommendations.

    Harland – As I mentioned in the article, it’s important to do more structured study alongside watching television. Character learning is an essential part of this. Once you’ve spent a few months getting a few hundred+ characters & common radicals under your belt, you’ll then be able to pause the shows and use handwriting input for electronic dictionaries (I use Pleco) to look up words. I have a suction cup stand for my phone (similar to what you see in many cars) that sits on the coffee table so as I’m watching pre-recorded shows I can just pause it and look words up that way. I don’t do that much any more, but that was invaluable for me back when I didn’t know a lot of words.

    Subs2srs I can’t comment on, as like I mentioned in the article, I’ve only dabbled with it a few times and don’t recommend it.

    There are plenty of very entertaining shows out there, I’m sure you just haven’t stumbled upon the right ones yet. Hopefully the recommendations in the next instalment will be helpful.

    Thanks for your comment. It’s been a few years since I was at the beginner stage so it was hard for me to know where to put the most emphasis and detail into the article, so your feedback was valuable.

    1. Sara K. says:

      I have not seen 籃球火, but I have heard of it. The only drama I’ve seen with 羅志祥 was 鬥魚2, where he plays a character with a personality quite different from how 羅志祥 generally presents himself … but 鬥魚 does tend to be a bit different from other idol dramas.

      I am guessing that the idol drama you picked also stars Vic Chou and is set in Kaohsiung.

      1. Luke Howard says:

        I knew you’d get it 😀

        You’re spot on that both the 鬥魚 series where quite different from other idol dramas, but I really enjoyed them nonetheless!

        1. Luke Howard says:


  5. Nik says:

    Definitely agree with you about using TV and the like to learn. The trouble is, though, that I often find it difficult to find Chinese TV shows that I actually like, apart from gameshows, which are still my favorite hahaha (一站到底 all the way!) So I’m really looking forward to the list of TV shows that’ll be on the way, and I’m hoping that there are some action series that aren’t 武侠。

    Also completely agree with not using English subtitles at all. I know a few learners who stand by using both subtitles concurrently, but I could never stop from focusing solely on the English.

    Shadowing’s actually an excellent idea! I’ve done mimicking with the help of Audacity before, but my main focus was just mimicking the speech. Taking it a step further and suggesting to shadow a character is a great suggestion to alleviate the boredom of the usual speech practice drills!

    1. Luke Howard says:

      Yep.. spot on about shadowing! The key to shadowing is to keep it simple and fun. As a technical person I do use Audacity occasionally, but only to record myself reading so I can then present it to a native speaker and have them identify problems in my speech. For shadowing, directly in front of the TV is the only way to go for me! It’s super fun getting the facial expressions and hand movements going to!

    2. Jon Lane says:

      I don’t know – having very very slowly picked up Mandarin from numerous other sources, I find that shows & movies with English subtitles work well for me. I wouldn’t watch with a fluent person as my method would drive them crazy: I simply pause, replay, rewind, pause, replay…I’ve learned a lot of words and phrases that I didn’t know thru this method.

  6. maggieh says:

    Great article! The idea of ‘shadowing’ is really interesting! I think another reason for watching TV – apart from language learning – is that it gives you some important cultural references which help when engaging with Chinese people. In HK trying to get people to talk about a favourite Chinese book is a real non-starter. People just don’t read! But everyone watches TV. Unfortunately HK produced dramas are pretty dire, but sometimes a Korean drama, dubbed into Chinese will get really popular. For putonghua I really loved 蜗居. I highly recommend both the book by 六六 & the TV series. I just started watching another one by the same author 心术 but I’m not quite so enamoured. Having read Luke’s article I will feel no guilt about ditching it and moving on to a new soap. Wonder if anyone has watched 来自星星的你 I can’t get it up on Youku. Any other options for watching it?

    1. Nik says:

      Have you tried looking on 搜狐?Or just run a Google search of it. I’ve done that for 七龙珠 because I could only find it on really obscure video websites.

      1. Maggieh says:

        Hi Nik – Yes, I’ve done a fair bit of searching,but I keep getting the message that it’s not currently available due to copyright concerns. ( I didn’t know 搜狐 cared!) Or I find the Korean language version with Chinese subtitles, but I want to watch it dubbed into putonghua. Maybe it’s a tad too early.

    2. Luke Howard says:

      Some of the Korean dramas when dubbed into Mandarin are actually really good!

      The last one I watched was 秘密花園, which aired around mid last year in Taiwan. It’s just a love story at its core, but as usual I was fascinated by the cultural differences in the Korean setting.

      I haven’t seen 蜗居, primarily because I only watch TV via cable here in Taiwan and they don’t air many mainland Chinese shows. The only two mainland shows that I’ve watched from start to finish are 唐琅探案 and 華麗一族. And I enjoyed both of them. I also watched a fair bit of 裸婚時代, but eventually got bored and stopped. That’s about the extent of my mainland TV show watching.

  7. Scott Burgan says:

    I’ve taken a bit of rest from TV as a way to improve my Chinese, but your article has convinced me to get back into it.

    My personal favourite shows are Anime series that have been dubbed into Chinese like Bleach 死神 for example. Even though they are originally Japanese I still enjoy the content.

    I also like 王子的約會 (Take me out), the things the contestants say are a little repetitive which make it an easy show to learn from. Also the host often rips on on the contestants which can be funny.

    It can be a very passive way to learn, but it doesn’t have to be. My personal recommendations are to practice stopping and rewinding a lot. Especially when you come across a new word or phrase that you didn’t quite catch the first time around. After you have watched about 5 minutes or so of the show stop and summarize to yourself out loud what has happened in the show so far. This constant stopping and summarizing helps all the new material to stick a lot better.

    1. Luke Howard says:

      Glad to hear it inspired you in some way!

      I talk a bit about anime and cartoons in the last article of this series (not yet out when I published this comment).

      I’ve never thought about doing regular summaries, but I like the idea a lot!

  8. Tyson says:

    On the topic of Subs2SRS: You need to be strategic in how you use this.

    First, most TV doesn’t have Chinese + English subs in srt format. You need to find shows that you like and that have this. There are few of them. A Bite of China is a good choice. Movies are better than TV for this – e.g. Lost in Thailand. Dubbed movies are much easier than original Chinese movies … but you’ll be learning translation which is not quite as good.

    Don’t learn every sentence. Use Subs2SRS to create a sentence pool that you can pull from based on vocabulary you are interested to learn. I have a seperate Anki deck for each movie/show. I don’t do reps on them. I just search them, then move the interesting sentences into my regular decks and SRS (based on cloze deletion). I have over 10,000 “spare” sentences thanks to this.

    If you are not handy with a computer, don’t bother with this technique. You’ll spend more time searching and aligning subtitles than learning.

    I actually grab the entire script, analyze for words that are common that I don’t know yet, than search for good sentence examples in my Subs2SRS decks to learn them. A Bite of China is great for very natural well pronounced Chinese about food culture. Lost in Thailand is great for silly idiomatic chinese spoken quickly. The Dark Knight Rises is great for learning words about cities and police, millionaire playboys and cat burglars and stuff. The Avengers is good for action dialog, and both Loki and Tony Stark have a few interesting lines to learn.

    It would be great if you could extract chinese subtitles from dating shows and the like, but today it’s not practical. But I have found my subtitle reading skills have advanced a lot from the sources that are available to the point where these shows are much more accessible anyway, and I can pause and note down sentences I like from other shows (once you can easily ready 95% of the sentence it’s easy enough to look up a few characters and create your own cards). If only it was easy to grab the audio too.

    1. Luke Howard says:

      It’s fantastic to hear that subs2srs is working for you! As I said, I read about quite a few people that have used it successfully 🙂

  9. Andrew says:

    I have found CCTV’s iPad app (aka CBoxHD) very reliable, and it gives access to a large number of live broadcasts both national and local, complete with archives organised by channel and by programme.

    I have an interest in current affairs with a local flavour, and my favourite programmes, broadcast every day, are BTV’s 特别关注 and CCTV’s 今日说法. The latter is great for getting a feel for regional language variations and to get an insight into China’s seedy underbelly

    People always seem to complain about the crap on Chinese TV, but I have been really impressed by the quality of some Chinese TV drama series. The first one I watched, 蜗居, has already been mentioned here. It’s over 5 years old now and is about the cost of real estate in China, its associated corruption and social problems.

    That series stars 张嘉译, who is a fantastic actor, and most of the TV series he has starred in recently are the kind that I enjoy. I would pick out for special mention 浮沉, 悬崖, and 借枪. They are all gritty, with good storylines, acting and atmosphere.

    For me there are some series that seem to really capture the atmosphere of life in China before it began its economic transformation at the end of the 20th century, and 张嘉译 has a minor role in the first one I want to mention, 请你原谅我, a tale of adolescent romance set in the 1980s. Then there’s 你是我的兄弟, 娘要嫁人, and 假如生活欺骗了你.

    If you want something a bit lighter, I really like 男人帮, in fact I’m watching it through a fourth time at the moment. I get more of the language and humour each time. I like the characters, the music, and the production in general. I also quite enjoyed 北京青年 and 我的经济适用男.


    1. Luke Howard says:

      I agree, there are some great shows in the Chinese language! Never quite understood any arguments to the contrary. Thanks for all your recommendations, I’m sure readers will find them all very useful 🙂

  10. George says:

    I found that starting out with children’s cartoon programs offers an easier entry point that attempting to start with adult movies.

    The material is geared for short attention spans and humor, rather than complex adult issues such as romantic affairs and injustices.

    The humor will often open doors with your Chinese friends as a means of bonding and learning more about Chinese culture.

    I particularly enjoy Conan, Doremon, and Sponge Bob Squarepants in Chinese. And have progessed on into the genre of Hong Kong action movies.

    Learning names is indeed a key feature of not getting overwhelmed. Usually, just the main characters are important as the other characters are discussing those guys.. not all the minor characters.

    1. Luke Howard says:

      Sponge Bob Squarepants in great in Chinese, particular the version dubbed for Taiwanese audiences! (It’s different to the version dubbed for the mainland)

  11. tony says:

    This drama is very fun and good to learn chinese.

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